I’m not sure what pictures and photographs you have on your wall or what you use as a screen saver or home screen on your phone but I know that most of mine are of loved ones in the natural environment, outdoors, on holidays, in mountains, by rivers, in the sea and groups of friends on a walk in the countryside. I’ve just had a walk around my home and the remainder are animals, elephants and penguins in our case. There’s even a painting of my old school but when I think about it, it is of the school from across the playing fields not the inside of a physics laboratory.
I wonder why that is?
I’m a professional mountaineer and I regularly take corporate teams on walks in the outdoors as well as private individuals. Sometimes up huge mountains in Africa or the Alps but also around the gentler countryside of the UK. What I’ve noticed is that people have an innate connection with the natural environment. I find people talk about defending the natural rural and upland landscapes even if they live in an urban environment and only visit it occasionally. They rate it as important even if they can’t immediately rationalise why.
Aristotle called this a ‘love of life’ and later psychologists stated ‘being attracted to all that is alive and vital’(1) (Eric Fromm). It even has a name….
Biophilia - ‘humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life’(2). They have an urge to affiliate with other forms of life.
You only have to watch a young child with a pet or a cuddly toy, there is a phenomenally strong bond there.
So what has this to do with Health & Well-Being?
I am very aware of how great I feel when I have come back home from a run or a good strenuous walk whether it is in fair weather or foul. Sitting around the fire afterwards warming up there is a totally different sensation to that following a gym session. In the same way after I have been in the sea, the feeling is very different to that following a dip in a local chlorinated swimming pool. In fact different even to a salt water pool I once experienced.
There are many studies(3)(4) that show how our levels of chemical neurotransmitters differ when experiencing a natural environment compared to ones where we only have a view of the predominantly concrete, brick and man made objects that so often surround us. No surprise then why there are moss walls, plants and water features appearing in some offices, public buildings and places nowadays.
So what does this natural stuff do to us?
It is I am sure very complex and multi-layered but in simple terms it makes us feel good through an increase in our natural Serotonin levels. Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilises our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. This hormone impacts your entire body. It enables brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other. Serotonin also helps with sleeping, eating, and digestion.
Non-natural Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) are a commonly prescribed type of anti-depressant used to overcome depression unfortunately with many side effects .
Picture a team out with me in the mountains. I invite them each to go and find somewhere safe where they can see and hear no one. We are already out of sight of all signs of human construction and its associated infrastructure of wires and roads. I then leave them there for a protracted period of time, finally recalling them with a whistle. I am constantly amazed by the power of this experience. I once did if for just 15 minutes and a senior executive said he had been realising, in that time, that it was possibly the longest time he could recall not interacting with a person or electronic object while he was awake or having totally uninterrupted thought with no specific goal in mind. Frequently people come back with solutions to problems, momentous decisions cracked or important suppressed emotions released. What is more revealing is how positive they feel afterwards. When I meet my trekking clients years later it is this 15 minutes they recall initially not the 4000 metre summit they stood on. That is Serotonin and Biophilia at work.
Being outside or outdoors leaves people with a positive feeling, an energy that 5 minutes at the water cooler or a hasty 30 minute lunch break in a cafe fails to deliver. A 10 minute walk around the block without your phone can provide a massive level of recovery from stress and fatigue.
During Covid we have become very focused on disease and infirmity so it is wise to reflect on the WHO’s (World Health Organisation) opening constitutional statement(5)……
‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.
What does shock me is a Department for Health report(6) that states ‘there has been little change in well-being in the UK over 40 years’. Certainly this is a call to action, a message to all business owners that it is time to be radical.
Connect with nature
Be active in it
Take notice of it
Keep learning about it
Spend time with others in it
Yes we know exercise increases the levels of Oxygen in our brains but that in turn boosts the levels of the important neurotransmitters like Serotonin and it is these that alter our mood in a positive way. However remember simply being connected to the natural environment also has an effect on our mood. You don’t have to register a personal best (PB) on a cycle ride, run or piece of gym equipment to feel better.
It is also interesting to note that a well known brand of an ‘at home exercise system’ has as its business goal to ‘bring the community and excitement of boutique fitness into the home’. Is this the best form of exercise? Is it removing us further from the natural environment which releases that additional Serotonin?
If you want to take your team out for a ‘Walk and Natter’ in the natural environment knowing that they will return more positive, with greater energy and kindness to others get in touch with me at:
Here are 2 short videos on this subject:
1 minute and 5 minutes.
1. Eric Fromm ‘Psychological orientation to being attracted to all that is alive and vital’.
2. Edward O. Wilson, (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-07442-4.
3. Roger S. Ulrich, View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery
Science 224(4647):420-1 May 1984
Records on recovery after cholecystectomy (gall bladder operation) of patients in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital between 1972 and 1981 were examined to determine whether assignment to a room with a window view of a natural setting might have restorative influences. Twenty-three surgical patients assigned to rooms with windows looking out on a natural scene had shorter post operative hospital stays, received fewer negative evaluative comments in nurses' notes, and took fewer potent analgesics than 23 matched patients in similar rooms with windows facing a brick build
4. Jana Söderlund, Peter Newman, 2017. Improving Mental Health in Prisons Through Biophilic Design.
Volume: 97 issue: 6, page(s): 750-772
Increasing nature and natural elements within a prison offers the potential to destress residents, improve mental health, cognitive functioning and learning; reduce recidivism and increase receptivity for behavioural change and restorative justice opportunities. Biophilic design is outlined as a set of principles, attributes and practices for cities to bring nature into urbanites’ daily life. The role of nature in restorative initiatives is traced back to the early work of innovative psychoanalyst, Eric Fromm, illustrating how his framework of human psychological pathways overlaps with biophilic design principles.
5. WHO Constitution https://www.who.int/about/who-we-are/constitution
6. Department for Health (UK) 2014 Wellbeing, why it matters in health policy.